BELLE DU SEINGNEUR BY ALBERT COHEN

 We all do it. For the first six months of any relationship our partners are essentially spending time with an imposter. The you that they meet and spend time with in the beginning is the perfect form of you; the most polite, least irritable, most generous, best-looking, most affectionate you. This you has a whole store of anecdotes to share, anecdotes that are already tried and tested on other men or women; you’ve worked on these anecdotes, moulded them, through trial and error, into nuggets of comedy gold. Moreover, this is a you who finds all his or her quirks charming, all his or her inane chatter interesting. Yes, one has [seemingly] inexhaustible supplies of patience when trying to find favour. There is, let’s face it, more subtle subterfuge goes on in new relationships than is to be found in any le Carre novel.

This is a novel concerned with the ridiculous first love of ridiculous people. Cohen was writing about appearances, about how when romantically interested in someone one creates an shiny, glittery, most alluring, facade to hide one’s real self behind. The style of the prose mimics overwrought romantic literature, is archly, ironically, hiding its own dark underbelly behind sometimes flowery language. The set-up of the story is that a bored and unsatisfied [and married] young woman called Ariane and a bored and unsatisfied [yet rich and successful] single man called Solal start an affair. Both are conceited, but charming, and appear to fall in love despite themselves. In the beginning things are wonderfully exciting for the couple. This is new ground for them, soft sensual ground, and the novel emotions they incite in each other provide them with a focus and endless hours of conversation. Furthermore, the illicit nature of their coupling, that they have a husband to dupe, creates a common bond, ties them to one another by a shared act of wrong-doing. This too, this wrong-doing, is also exciting of course.

However, once they strike out on their own, once she leaves her husband, the relationship begins to flounder. With no external diversions [her friends, his job], with no common cause [their secret love], no common enemy [Ariene’s husband], they become, inevitably, bored with each other. Also, with the loss of status that both suffer as a consequence of the affair they start to realise that love alone isn’t enough to make a relationship work. The dying of the spark, their weary acknowledgement of it, and subsequent attempts to reignite it, provide the funniest, most cynical, passages of the book. There is ranting enough [from Solal, mostly] in these passages to satisfy any Thomas Bernhard fan. Solal at one point even hits Ariane for, what he believes are, altruistic reasons. He can’t bear to see her so devoid of passion, and if she can’t passionately love him anymore then he would would rather she passionately hate him; passion, he thinks, being preferable to complacency. Of course, his plan doesn’t work: she becomes scared, and he pities her. Pity, as we know, is only marginally less likely to fan the flames of desire than walking in on your woman bleaching her ‘tache.

Belle du Seigneur is a modern fairytale; it is light and frothy, yet dark and brooding, is funny yet harrowing, is overwrought yet gritty and realistic. Throughout it’s 900+ pages it touches upon, and draws from the reader, a number of contrasting emotions, and is, in this way, a little bit like being in love for the first time.

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